When Great Biblical Scholars Confuse Bad Scholarship with Real Scholarship

It rarely happens. A well known biblical scholar posts an article that I can access and respond to in real-time. Just today, Dr. Marcus Borg, a reknowned biblical scholar, wrote an article in the Huffington Post. His article concerns a timeline of the New Testament, where he maps out the order in which he believes the 27 books of the New Testament were published.

It’s a pretty good article, reflecting well-worn (and declining in popularity) historical-critical scholarship. However, he rather humorously calls his position “mainstream biblical scholarship.” This is an irony, since his version of mainstream scholarship is endorsed by fewer and fewer Christians, let alone Christian denominations. Wikipedia calls him an influential voice in progressive Christianity.

The Jesus Seminar

At the very least, he might be forthright about his membership in the “Jesus Seminar” in his Huffington Post article.  The Jesus Seminar has lost considerable credibility with mainstream scholars and practicing Christians because the Jesus Seminar does silly, and non-scientific, things. They vote, verse by verse, on the accuracy of a given Gospel text by submitting a colored bead. And of course, the “Jesus Seminar” is closely associated with the published work of John Dominic Crossan, who asserts very explicitly that the crucifixion was the end of the life of Jesus.

Dr. Borg

Borg is nevertheless a formidable and well-respected scholar. His publications on the life and ministry of Jesus are major contributions to Christian scholarship, even if one does not agree with his views. Borg is one of a handful of scholars who has published a massive tome on the meaning of the life and resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Borg has drawn his own conclusions. They are scholarly, but they contribute to a multitude of views about the meaning of the ministry of Jesus. Dr. Borg’s views on the self-understanding of Jesus are also a contribution to an academic area where there are at least a half dozen or so views as to whether Jesus believed himself to be divine, and why.

These views are not “mainstream” for the simple reason that, among biblical scholars, there exists a multiplicity of views about who Jesus believed himself to be. The reader ought to be aware that some of these academic views cannot even be characterized as Christian, since some of these scholars argue that Jesus a) never understood himself to be divine, or b) if he did, he was mistaken, or c) if he understood himself to be a Son of God, that does not mean that he was any different than you or I.

Lets look at his comments in the Huff Post Article.

“The Gospels are not the Source of early Christianity but its product.”

This statement is actually self-evident, and only true if taken in context. The Gospels were not circulated two days or two weeks after Pentecost.  For most Christians, the fact that the Gospels were written twenty to fifty years after Pentecost does not alter their historicity. On the other hand, for many Christians, the Gospels are the source of the faith, since we do not claim to know much about the world behind the text. Scholars attempt to get behind that world behind the text. “Attempt” is the operative word here, since most of the written material about Jesus comes from the Gospels and the letters of Paul.

For the historical-critical scholar, the late dating means that the authors interpolated quite a bit. It means Jesus did not walk on water (an addition), that Lazarus was not raised form the dead (myth), that Peter was never metaphorically given the keys to the kingdom (a later modification), that chapter 21 of John is not even written by the same author as the rest of John. For some scholars, like John Dominic Crossan, it means Christ never rose from the dead. The resurrection was, for these scholars, a fable created by the community to “deal with” or to rationalize the drama of the ministry and Passion of Jesus.

Borg ignores another analytical problem. And that is this: while Paul’s letters may have been written before the Gospels, Saint Paul did not witness the preaching of Jesus, nor his passion! Again, the source texts for these events are not Paul’s letters but the Gospels themselves. In Borg’s article, he ignores the fact that at least two of the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses to extensive portions of the ministry of Jesus. This is the definition of apostolic authority. It is the privilege of speaking (and writing) about Jesus based on a personal knowledge of the man himself.

“Reading the Gospels in chronological order, beginning with Mark…”

As readers of my blog know, the scholarship substantiating Marcan priority is circumstantial. I’ve talked to scholars on these pages. Some feel strongly that Matthew drew from Mark. I respect that. But as I have stated before, the earliest nineteenth-century scholarship on Marcan priority is absolutely abysmal. The more recent scholarship is based purely on redaction analysis, since we have no credible archaeology or early records indicating that the Church Fathers believe Mark wrote his Gospel first. As I have argued, redaction scholarship proves little unless it can be supported by other forms of biblical research. Borg’s blithe ignorance of the growing academic skepticism towards Marcan priority tells us he is a scholar out of touch with recent trends in scriptural study.

“John’s Gospel is primarily “witness” or “testimony” to what Jesus had become in the life and thought of John’s community.”

Again, Borg’s views aren’t scholarship, they are self-serving arguments. Per Borg, John is not a witness to the events of the life of Jesus. According to Borg, the Gospel of John is witness to what “Jesus had become” to the Johannine community. Note the classic phrase, “what Jesus had become.” This is the language of the Jesus Seminar: we’ve lost the original Jesus. John’s Gospel gives us the “Johannine version” of Jesus, or what Jesus was in the popular imagination of John’s community. If this were the case, then the theology in John would contradict Matthew.

The theology in John’s Gospel does not contradict the theology in Matthew’s Gospel, because both Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. In fact, both Gospels were written (or possibly dictated, if a scribe wrote on their behalf) by apostles who had apostolic authority. That is why you see systematic organization in John and Matthew: because both authors knew Jesus and listened to him preach. The organization in Mark and Luke is less evident, because these Gospels were not written by close confidants of Jesus himself.

It’s interesting. Many scholars see the organization in Matthew and John and therefore argue these Gospels were written later, and heavily redacted or glossed. To me, the organization in both Gospels demonstrates the opposite. The authors of these Gospels were men determined to faithfully and persuasively record what they had seen themselves, men who did not want to resort to a stream-of-consciousness account on the one hand, or a strictly chronological, biographic account on the other. The Gospels of Matthew and John aren’t the works of a committee – they are the works of two great theologians. Finally, their theological greatness comes not from their imagination, it comes from their close proximity to the work of Jesus, in addition to a serious dose of inspiration from the Holy Spirit. And yes, that inspiration may have come from the community as well!

One of the problems with biblical scholarship is that while Borg may be a respected biblical scholar, his expertise in the area of theology is not so evident. That is why biblical scholars are often reduced to subjecting passages to textual analysis: because they don’t know the theology. And that may be one reason the “historical-critical scholars” are always misinterpreting Scripture, fudging the history and toying with the dating of its authorship.

If you believe what you like in the Gospels, and reject what you don’t like,  then it is not the Gospel you believe in, but yourself. – St Augustine

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